Muriel and Ronald were worrying the everlasting bone of money, one Saturday in May, when the postman brought them a thick envelope from "Books for Youth," a Division of Winkler Sons, Publishers. The letter is worth repetition in its entirety. Addressed to Mr. Ronald Reggio O'Malley, Esq . . . ("Get that," said Ron), it then proceeded:
Dear Mr. O'Malley,
I am pleased to report to you that our Board of Editors has read your manuscript ("Merck did it!") of The Ten Messages and authorized me to offer you an agreement for its publication. ("I can't believe it! Hey, listen to this, Mumu.") Perhaps you may be somewhat surprised to find so strong an interest in your work in our Youth Division ("Youth Division?") but at Winkler Sons we try to position every worthwhile book in relation to its premier audience ("Bullshit."). This is a feature of our company's ramified services in which we take some pride ("More bullshit!"). We are now issuing our second millionth copy of Tom Sawyer ("What the hell?"). We hope to place Panku, like Tom, in the hands not only of the young, but of the eternally young in heart of all ages and countries ("Stop it"). I hope that you will agree with our reasoning in this context ("Merck must have briefed him.").
If you would like to join our distinguished group of authors ("Ahem"), we would offer you our standard agreement with special arrangements adapted to your position. In the accompanying agreement, you will note that in addition to the standard royalties, we have provided for an advance against royalties of $3,750.00 ("Money, money."), payable in three installments, the first of which occurs upon signature of the agreement ("That's $800 . . . No it isn't, . . . it's twelve hundred, no, twelve fifty, . . no. . yes.").
If, after consideration, you decide to accept, please call me for an early appointment ("Today is Saturday!") to exchange signatures, at which time, too, a cheque covering the advance would be drawn, and should the time of day be appropriate, we might step out afterwards for lunch or a cocktail in celebration of the event. I am looking forward to our first meeting ("You can call him Monday, Ronnie."). I should add that the Board of Editors, not without generating some heat in their discussions, was impressed by the ways in which your story coped with the eternal problem of good and evil. ("Right on!") The Board felt, and I agree, that in this urban age, when the farm population is reduced to a mere four per cent ("Is that all it is?") young people of high school age particularly can obtain from you a better notion of the challenges of urban civilization. We have, incidentally, the largest sales force in the country operating exclusively with school officials and teachers. There are also federal and state affirmative action programs that may help secure a place for the book among the ethnic groups addressed in it. ("There's a switch for you!") Therefore we hold high hopes for your book.
In transmitting to us your material, Professor Merck described how various topics that he is treating in his book, The Psychology of Universal Literature, are well illustrated by your own writing experience, indeed, that he makes frequent allusions to your text. This is all grist for the mill and 'one hand washes the other,' so to speak. ("That Merck, he's incredibly clever.") It will be beneficial all around for both books to appear in print at the same time. ("Look at that . . . how naive we are ,Muriel!")
In the pleasant prospect of hearing from you soon, I am
Editor and Director
Ronald stares at Muriel. "It's been two months since Merck's mentioned my book . . . I knew it was too good to be true . . . Now here it is . . . tossed right back in my lap."
"Twelve hundred dollars."
"What's he done to the book? He must have cut out all the sex and violence."
"No, no. . He wouldn't do that . . . Anyhow haven't you heard what's coming out in juvenile books, these days? Sex physiology, birth control methods, abortion, how to get a divorce, foxing the old man -- and the swearing -- they say it's unbelievable. No, I think what got to them was your optimism; it's unusual. You're such a lovable, fuzzy-haired, dreamy-eyed optimist, Ronnie darling," and she begins to climb all over him.
"No . . . don't . . . wait . . . look . . . I'm no optimist, for Christ's sake. I kill off everybody."
"But then you revive the people . . . "
"But the Bible does that -- Noah's Deluge and all that jazz. No one calls the Bible optimistic."
"But you're fiction. The Bible's . . . well . . . the Bible is a sort of, kind of . . . truth?"
"The hell you say I'm fiction. Just you wait and see."
"I can wait, Ronnie . . . Now, let's get back to bed. We don't work today, do we?"
"I must see Merck."
"You'll see him tomorrow."
"I don't like this juvenile bit."
"Oh don't let that bother you . . . Where something starts is never where it ends."
"Listen to that! Muriel, you've just coined a universal aphorism." He kisses her and nimbly hops to where his clothing is neatly heaped. "No, I have to go to the office. I'm expecting to see a boy about a dog."
"While I was working for Disassociation Associates, there was a nice lady running the lunch wagon around the building, and sometimes she had her little boy helping her out. Now she's gotten married and her husband wants her boy to get rid of this dog that followed him home one day. So the boy believes that, for a small fee, Association Associates can do something about it. And I agree."
"He sounds like a reasonable client," comments Muriel judiciously . . . "You go ahead. I'll come by for you."
He pauses while kissing her to ask, "Do you think -- I've been reading -- that Americans fall in love faster than other people?"
"I don't know about other people . . . Maybe Americans can't waste time."
Ronald counted their clients as he walked to their office on Twenty-Third Street. Aside from the boy and dog, there was the old lady who had hired them to increase the number of times per year that her middle-aged son would visit her. There was Mr. Smart, a modest vein of gold, for whom he had found a French partner desiring to do business in America, and whose every ad and calling card now carried the motto, "Smart and Charpentier, Fine French Pastries since 1892."
Merck, who let himself be carried on the letterhead of Association Associates as "Ph.D., Principal Consultant," had also introduced Ronald into the consulting business, whereby 'A' asked "B' about something who asked 'C' who asked 'D' who was Ronald and who got his share in the end. His true clients, they were discovering, were usually beyond the reach of the welfare system. They were too odd, too impatient, or too well-to-do, or had problems, admittedly grave, that had fallen into the chinks of the system that thousands of pages of legislation and rules had not filled. Like the one that preoccupied him now.
This was the bringing together of all the human fragments that had been exploded in the disaster that brought down Disassociation Associates. Ron had in mind assuaging their feelings of guilt and mutual suspicion, and of recruiting them for Association Associates after a period of re-education. It was a big job, which he could hardly have afforded to undertake were it not that Merck had obtained for him an add-on to his (Merck's) three-year research grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health. Ronald had to begin with the adage, "Physician, cure thyself," for he was haunted by the same memories as his patients and potential associates.
He had gone to work one morning, at Disassociation Associates, shortly after Muriel had moved in with him. It was a pleasant Spring day, and he had resolved upon a scram that would bring him out in the open air. At the elevators of his office building he was stopped by two policemen, who were asking people their floor numbers, and when he gave his, a man in plainclothes said, "O.K., I'll be going up with you." It was well that he did, for when they arrived they stepped into a hubbubbing crowd, rather like the scene of a grim traffic accident, none of whom Ronald recognized, except Joel Feinstein, another scram, whose face, until it disappeared into the crowd, betrayed an unusual anxiety, even fright.
"Come on, over here, in this room," says detective, and he is told to be seated before a desk where a uniformed policeman takes his name, address, age, and employment history on a long form, to which is affixed an instant photograph, quite poor, taken by a uniformed photographer standing by, and a set of his fingerprints, freshly taken. Then, since he is so cooperative, they search him as well.
"What's going on?" Ronald asks when all of this had been completed and the form had gone down the hall and into Mr. Shiller's office. "A break-in?"
The clerk-policeman sneers at him and the photographer-policeman shakes his head resignedly, while the detective, who is still with him, asks him, in an accusing tone, why he had not been watching television. Those were the early days with Muriel, and he can't provide an explicit reply. The detective waits a moment for effect, and then says simply, "They bumped off your boss."
Ronald is so astonished that he can't say a word; he visits an oafish stare first upon one man, then another, then the third, then back again. By the time his cracking voice begins to emit "But . . . who . . . why??" he is being hustled into Mr.Shiller's own office where he had last visited on the occasion of his trip to Washington. "Here he is, Ms. Lolabrigida," announces his escort.
A policeman stands at one corner of the room, a detective at another, and at Mr. Shiller's large desk sits a well-turned out young blond woman who looks Ron up and down as if he might he concealing the truth in some fold of skin. She leans forward on her elbow, comparing him with his picture on the long form, while the detective who had brought him intoned mechanically his rights against self-incrimination and to legal counsel.
"I'm Jessica Lolabrigida, one "l", Assistant District Attorney," she tells Ron.
"I'm Ronald O'. .
"Yes, I know," she interrupts. "You're not really a suspect, Mr. O'Malley, but we have a large number of crimes connected in here and we would appreciate any help that you can give us."
Ron nods his head vigorously. He can't trust his voice yet.
"What do you know about the Special Cases Division of Disassociation Associates?"
"I know Mr. Myron Panz, the Director. We call him "Ironpants."
"So we've heard . . . A tough guy?"
"We thought he was unobliging. He said very little and I had no contacts with him . . . never."
"Wouldn't trust you, eh?"
"Why? Did he do something wrong?"
"Mr. O'malley, somebody did something wrong." She leans back in Mr. Shiller's leather swivel chair, lifts her feet upon his desk, and recites from a piece of paper: "two homicides plus two possible; 36 felonious assaults; 91 harassments ; 217 reported threats.. Did you ever harass or threaten anyone in the course of your work?"
"No, ma'm. In fact, we were told not to press too hard, just to let the matter drop."
"Just like that? Who carried on after you let the matter drop?"
"I don't know. I never heard of any follow-up . . . who did it? . . I mean . . . killed Mr. Shiller."
"Well, now, consider this: A long black Cadillac calls for him last evening here. He is working late. Three smartly dressed men wearing fedora hats drive off with him. An anonymous call suggests that a diver might find a big fish off of Pier MM in Hoboken. The diver cuts the cable tying the body to the cement block . . . Now who do you think did it?"
"Nobody in the office, certainly."
She looks at him with disdain. He feels foolish and tries another remark: "Maybe some clients, who figured that you were closing in on him, decided to shut him up."
She beams proudly upon him. He feels just like he did when Merck told him that he had a book in him. "Very good, Mr. O'Malley . . . Tell me, how do you spend your time when you're not working?"
"I'm really a novelist," he answers, glad of any purchase out of the vagrancy into which he had lately fallen.
"Oh, a novelist!" she exclaims brightly, setting her feet down with a thump. (There, he's done it again.) "I wish that I had time to tell you some of my plots -- absolutely true experiences."
"I wish you could, Ms. Lolabrigida."
"Here, let me sketch for you one story -- so typical you'd think it comes out of the Bible or Homer, so frightful, too." She glances at her watch, knowing full well she has no time. Back she swings on Shiller's seat and up went her legs again.
"Once upon a time, the New York Police Department had a specially trained pair of horses . . . "
But two detectives come in just then, leading a stony-faced 'Ironpants'. "You said you wanted to see this man as soon as he came in, Ms. Lolabrigida."
She thumps forward again and waves away Ronald. "You may go now. Call me if anything occurs to you, here's my card . . . And keep up the good work."
Ron went home to Muriel stunned, and only her loving ministrations could revive him. It was then that Merck, who was never -- almost never -- at a loss, came up with the idea of Association Associates.
What marvels the season had wrought! Like a character in a novel, who at the end conveniently recalls the totality of his experiences, Ronald conjured up the obsessed mother cat, the overhanging intellect of Merck, his mother in tennis shoes, his boss Shiller weeping and murdered, the thighs of Muriel pressed against the butcher block. "The Ten Messages" even flashed across his mind -- nine, actually, since one eluded him.
And now the new order of things: association out of dissociation! Ron looked with gratification upon the bundle of mail before him, addressed to his company -- third class, to be sure, almost all of it -- but what a good idea, an idea that everybody might apply, at all times, everywhere.